1. They love routines
Good routines are the secret weapon of highly focused people.
Maintaining focus will always require effort and willpower to some extent. But just because focus sometimes requires effort, doesn’t mean it always should.
If you’ve ever observed someone in a state of deep focus, they don’t usually appear frustrated or exhausted. On the contrary, they usually look like they’re “in the zone” or “in a flow state.” This language is a clue that true focus is actually characterised by ease more than effort.
We often talk about how great athletes, for example, “make it look easy.” They have a naturalness and smoothness to their focus that is very different than the frustrated effortfulness most of us feel when trying to straighten out our golf swing or hold a difficult yoga position.
True focus is about ease, not effort.
So how do they do it? How do highly focused people make intense levels of concentration easy?
Perhaps the most important lesson is that they’re masters of routine.
A routine is a simple set of behaviours that acts as a bridge to another more complex set of behaviours.
For example, writing an article like this is a cognitively demanding activity. It’s difficult for me to simply get to my office, sit down at my desk, and start writing. So I use a small routine to ease me into my writing:
Before I start writing, I make a cup of coffee or tea and slowly sip on it while listening to music for about 5 minutes. Once I’m done with my drink and the music is over, I open my writing app and start typing.
Just like you would stretch and warm up before a major exercise like weight lifting or sprinting, a good routine helps you “warm up” before a major piece of mental work. And the result is that it’s both easier to start working and stay working for long stretches of time.
If you struggle with getting started on your work, stop trying to push harder and try creating a small pre-work routine that makes it easier to fall into your work.
The imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.
― Jonah Lehrer
2. They procrastinate productively
Truly productive people embrace procrastination rather than fight against it.
At first glance, the terms productive and procrastination would appear to be opposites. After all, one of the biggest reasons people cite for their difficulty focusing is the tendency to procrastinate.
But what if procrastination itself isn’t really the problem? What if the real problem is that people don’t know how to procrastinate the right way?
Productive procrastination means cultivating a set of activities you can procrastinate on that will still lead you to be productive in the long run.
For example: While my main work is writing, occasionally I procrastinate on it. I say “screw it” to whatever writing goal or task I set myself for that morning and lose myself in another activity that seems more enjoyable — often reading or web design.
Even though I am avoiding my work, both reading and web design are highly beneficial for my work in the long run. Reading is a form of research for future articles, for example. While web design makes my articles easier to read, more enjoyable, easier to share — all of which are hugely beneficial as a writer.
But here’s the real secret of productive procrastination:
Allow yourself to procrastinate in small ways and you’ll rarely end up procrastinating in major ways.
The urge to procrastinate is normal. It’s often your mind’s perfectly natural desire for novelty and stimulation.
And when you stop wasting boatloads of mental energy fighting against the urge to procrastinate and criticising yourself for it, you’ll find that it’s far easier to get back to work quickly and easily after a brief session of productive procrastination.
The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
— Walt Disney
3. They ruthlessly eliminate distractions
Focus is much more of a subtraction problem than an addition problem.
The biggest reason we struggle to focus is distraction.
Whether it’s a Facebook notification on your phone, a colleague dropping by your office to chat, or a new video game on your iPad, nothing sabotages our focus and concentration like a distraction.
Unfortunately, most people resign themselves to the belief that distractions are simply inevitable and that the best way to stay focused is to try and resist distractions.
This means that they see focus as something they have to do and apply willpower to. But this is a losing strategy…
Stop trying to resist distractions and work like hell to avoid them in the first place.
Highly focused people know that while some distractions are inevitable, many of them are avoidable if you’re willing to make some tough choices.
For example, if I need to get some serious writing done in the morning, I will leave my phone in my car, close out of all the apps on my computer except my writing app, and close the shade to the window.
This may seem a bit extreme but it’s human nature that we’re far worse at managing distractions than we like to believe.
If you’re serious about improving your focus, get serious about eliminating distractions.
Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.
— Nathan W. Morris
4. They’re compassionate with themselves
Being hard on yourself is a short-term strategy with disastrous long-term consequences.
Early in life, most people learn that the proper way to motivate yourself is to “get tough” with yourself. Like a drill sergeant yelling at his new recruits, we’re led to believe that unless we’re incredibly hard and exacting with ourselves, we’ll end up soft, weak, and unable to achieve our goals.
This is based on the incorrect belief that fear is an effective motivator. While fear can very temporarily get you to act, it tends to have a de-motivating effect in the long-term because it negatively impacts your self-confidence.
What’s more, if you over-rely on fear as a motivator, it tends to lose even it’s short-term benefits with time.
This leads most people into a dangerous situation when it comes to trying to stay focused:
They’re dependent on a single strategy to motivate themselves.And just like investing your money, it’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.
Their one strategy doesn’t actually work anymore. Especially when you’re trying to stay focused on tasks without external accountability (sticking to a diet, for example), fear-based motivation is pretty ineffective.
The side effects are disastrous. Constant self-criticism not only leads to anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem, but it also tends to kill what little motivation you do already have.
Highly focused and productive people understand that — while strangely tempting — self-criticism only sabotages your ability to stay focused and do your best work.
You’ve already fallen down… How does kicking yourself in the gut make it any easier to get back up again?
Instead of being hard on yourself, cultivate self-compassion in the face of adversity or mistakes:
If you get distracted and momentarily lose focus, gently remind yourself to get back to work and refocus your attention.
If you feel the urge to start procrastinating, calmly remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to procrastinate. It happens to everybody.
If you forget to work on a goal or task one day, acknowledge that everybody makes mistakes and make a note to yourself to come up with a better reminder system for your work.
Think about it this way:
If a good friend were to tell you about some episode of getting distracted or losing focus, how would you respond to them?
Most likely, you wouldn’t start criticising them for being weak and undisciplined; instead, you’d offer one or two sympathetic words of encouragement and not make too big a deal over it.
Why not do the same with yourself?
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.
— Albert Einstein
5. They take advantage of inspiration but don’t rely on it
Inspiration is like extra credit: Good to take advantage of when you can but never to be relied upon.
One hallmark of highly focused people is that they have a healthy relationship with inspiration.
First, never take it for granted. Instead of assuming that you need to feel inspired or motivated to work, believe that you can do pretty good work regardless of how you feel — especially if you build the right habits that make it easy to start working and stay focused (see Section 1 above).
Just because inspiration leads to focus doesn’t mean focus depends on inspiration.
Second, when inspiration does show up, they take extreme advantage of it. For example, if you sit down to work and find that you’re really feeling inspired and doing great work, do whatever you can to stay in that flow.
Don’t just stop working because your planned amount of time is up. Cancel meetings, delay secondary tasks, and generally do anything short of committing a crime to take full advantage of genuine inspiration.
Never waste a good jolt of inspiration. It might not be back for a while.
Finally, highly focused people know that the relationship between feeling and action is a two-way street. While feeling inspired obviously leads to high-quality focus and good work, the inverse is also true: Focusing and working well tends to produce motivation and even inspiration.
For example, suppose you want to write a novel… If you only wrote when you felt inspired, you’d likely have a lot of empty pages even after a year’s worth of time.
On the other hand, if you committed to writing even a few hundred words per day regardless of how you felt, a surprising number of those writing sessions would actually contain some good stuff, which — once you saw it on paper — would motivate you to write more.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
— Stephen King
6. They have clear values
Clear, compelling values are the ultimate source of focus and motivation.
At the end of the day, you can arm yourself with all the best tips, tricks, tools, and techniques for focus, but the quality of your work matters more than anything else.
If you’re consistently working on things you don’t care about, maintaining focus will always be a struggle.
Doing the right kind of work pulls you into states of focus almost effortlessly. Think about it…
Kids don’t have to try hard to focus on playing video games.
You probably don’t have to try hard to focus on a good conversation with your best friend.
If you love playing basketball, you probably don’t have to try hard to maintain your focus throughout the game.
Highly focused people understand this simple truth:
The real secret to staying focused is to work on things you value.
Now, we can’t all just spend our days playing basketball or video games. And luckily, working on things you value doesn’t mean only working on things you’re completely passionate about.
Many aspects of our work contain deep values within them if you’re willing to look closely and clarify them.
For example, in my work as a writer, I generally enjoy the act of writing itself and its value is pretty clear to me, so focusing on it isn’t too difficult. However, marketing and distributing my writing is another story… I don’t find a lot of immediate or obvious value in posting my work to social media, for example.
But when I take the time to clarify what my values are with regard to writing, I realise that getting my ideas in front of more people is something I really value. Which means that there is a strong value within this task I don’t enjoy much. I just have to take the time to clarify it and remind myself of it. And when I do, it makes it much easier to focus and stick with it.
If you take the time to identify and clarify the values behind your work, focus will take care of itself.
Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
— Theodore Roosevelt